Teaching Profession

Mental Health Days—A Boon or a Bust for Teachers?

By Madeline Will — October 31, 2023 5 min read
Photo of stressed teacher working using laptop in the classroom.
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October and early-to-mid November can feel like a slog for teachers. It’s the time of year known as the “disillusionment phase”—teachers are working long hours, they’re tired, and their classrooms might not be running as smoothly as they want.

A mental health day might seem particularly tempting this time of year.

Research shows that the adults in the school building are stressed and burned out—and 52 percent of teachers say that their school or district permitting and encouraging mental health days would help them, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center poll conducted at the start of this year.

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Photo of stressed teacher.
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On average, teachers receive about a dozen sick and personal days a year and are typically able to roll over any unused days from year to year. (Many teachers save their sick days for the case of an extended medical leave, including parental leave, or to cash out upon retirement.)

In many districts, teachers can use their time off for mental health reasons—even if there isn’t an explicitly named “mental health day” in the leave offerings.

But do they? EdWeek asked teachers on social media whether they found mental health days to be effective. The answers were a mixed bag.

A day off is needed

Some teachers said the occasional day off helped reset and refresh their mindsets.

“In my opinion, mental health days are needed for high stress jobs. As a teacher for 25 years, I could feel myself getting worn down and exhausted. I did not call them mental health days, but I would take time to myself occasionally and return to the classroom feeling so much better! I will never apologize for taking time to take care of myself.”

Cindy H.

“Mental health days are essential! It gives you time to reflect upon concerns you have with your class. It’s like putting yourself outside of the box and being able to look in to see what you haven’t had the time to see or understand. It allows you to return to school with fresh ideas and from a different perspective. Take the mental health day ….”

Carolyn B.

There are logistical concerns

But many teachers pointed out that a lot of work goes into preparing their classrooms for a substitute. Sometimes, the stress of preparing for a mental health day negates the benefits of one, teachers said.

“I spent 2.5 hours writing plans and gathering materials for the 10 groups I teach in a day. That is on top of the time I need to take to plan for myself. I am not sure it is worth it.”

@wheelockh

“There is no such thing as a mental health day when school is in session. I spend 3-4 hours of time writing sub plans for someone to maybe come in and cover my normal school day. There have been times that I have written sub plans for a day just to come back and find out I didn’t have a sub. With pacing calendars enforced for every subject, teachers don’t have the luxury for saving the plans for another time.”

Stacey W.

“I can say that mental health days could be more effective if teachers (1) didn’t have to sub plan for them, and (2) were truly left alone on those days. Otherwise I’ve seen it turn into a teacher working twice as hard for a few days to prepare for their day off, only to get an email on their day off from the sub or someone at school, interrupting what should be a mental health recovery day 🙁"

Vimbo W.

The substitute shortage has meant that some teachers won’t even have access to a substitute—and their colleagues will pick up the slack.

“One of the big problems with ‘mental health days’ is that it puts an added strain on other teachers. Classes get split in elementary, and teachers are required to period sub in secondary. I’ve always felt that it’s unfair to ask my peers to shoulder part of my burden.”

Ralph B.

And some teachers added that even when there’s a sub in place, they’re still falling behind for every day they’re out of the classroom.

“Mental heath days are only really effective if you are able to switch off. When I was a teacher being off meant work was piling up for when I got back which meant I couldn’t really relax and get better. It was less stress to just go in.”

Rosie W.

Some suggest more structured alternatives

Some teachers suggested that school districts could plan work days centered on staff mental health, rather than placing the onus on teachers to take time off.

“Ideally, here’s what they look like: 💡School Calendar says: Teacher Workshop day—no students

Workshop Agenda says: Go take care of yourself. Location: Your choice

Bonus Points for planning this on a Friday or Monday. Extra Bonus Points: Here’s $20 for your lunch! 😆"

Cassandra R.

“Work-in days that allow teachers to work without interruption could allow them to reduce the workload they are taking home. The day should be planned in advance so that plans can be made ahead of time. The day is used to complete all the work that keeps piling up and whatever the teacher wants to work on. This is not an in-service/teacher PD day.”

Isaiah C.

Some districts are taking concrete steps to boost their employees’ mental health. For example, the Phoenix Union high school district in Arizona has two full-time licensed counselors whose sole focus is the districts’ employees.

But teachers advocate for systemic change

Some teachers pointed out that a mental health day might be a Band-Aid on a more systemic problem of too many responsibilities and too little time.

“Providing a reasonable workload so that work can actually be accomplished without us being stressed out to the point of needing mental health days. I mean, providing mental health days is better than not having mental health days, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem, it just provides temporary pain relief.

It’s like, taking an abortive migraine pill for a migraine that was triggered by allergies without treating the allergy flare. Sure, the migraine goes away, for maybe a day, but if my allergies are still really bad, the migraine is going to come back because the trigger is still there, what I actually need to do is treat the migraine AND the allergy flare. It’s similar with mental health. Sure, a break can help you recharge, and is often necessary, but the unreasonable amount of stress will be there when we get back and so you need to reduce the stress load overall.”

Jessica G.

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